The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) are important to every school in the state, but the testing - which is currently in progress in Minnesota - may in fact be more paramount to the 25 school districts that were approved for the flexible learning year (FLY).
With the state asking education systems to do more with less resources and the knowledge that student achievement is only measurable through test scores, area administrators came up with a three-year plan - the Improved Student Achievement Initiative - which involved getting approval from the Minnesota Department of Education in order to start the 2010-11 school year on Aug. 23, instead of after Labor Day. Having more days available to prepare for state testing seemed logical to the superintendents involved in the consortium of FLY schools.
"The big thing is about student learning," Canby Superintendent Loren Hacker said. "We believe those days in August are better spent than those days in May, or June this year with all the bad weather. We'd have more days before the testing."
MCA testing dates are typically rigid. This year, MCA math online testing for grades 3-8 had to be taken between March 28-May 20, while paper testing in reading and math for grades 3-8 was required between April 11-29. MCA testing at the high school level had a much smaller window of opportunity, with grades 10-11 testing on April 12 and 13.
"We need to have assessments to see how our kids are doing," Tracy Area Public School Superintendent Dave Marlette said. "They're very important because we want to know what kind of job we're doing."
While student achievement is ultimately the measuring stick, results from the state tests are not scheduled to be released until Aug. 15, which Marlette said was frustrating.
"How can we make changes when we don't know what we need to improve on?" he said. "By the time the results come back, we have our staff and programs already in place for the year."
Despite the frustration, TAPS is doing its best to prepare students for testing, including the act of supplying a free breakfast to all students, which began April 11, through the remainder of the school year.
"It ties in very good with the testing," Marlette said. "If you don't take care of kids' basic needs, they're not going to do very well on the tests. And, the price is right (since it is reimbursed through a federally-funded program)."
The reading and mathematics testing is also used to determine whether or not districts are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward all students being proficient by 2014. Preliminary AYP results are slated to be released the week of Aug. 22.
"All students are supposed to pass, and not even one kid can fail," Minneota Superintendent Dan Deitte said. "We don't encourage teaching for a test, but the bottom line is that testing is what we get graded on. (As a FLY group), our premise was that because we started early, that would give us more time to teach. We're hoping achievement goes up. But no matter what, we've created a better opportunity."
Marshall Public School Superintendent Klint Willert said that the superintendents in the consortium have pulled together in an effort to provide leadership, work with stakeholders and community members to keep them informed and remain transparent and accountable about following through on what they said they would. Their efforts did not go unnoticed, as the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, on behalf of the 25 FLY schools, was recognized recently with a Local Government Innovation Award from the Humphrey School's Public and Non-profit Leadership Center.
"I believe we're leading school improvement in the region," Willert said. "It seems like southwest Minnesota now has a stronger voice, at least in the area of education. There's a tremendous amount of power and strength in numbers. This award helps validate that further."
There is a unanimous sense of disappointment that the harsh winter took away a significant number of educational hours, so a true estimate of the FLY won't be as accurate as anticipated. But most FLY schools admit that their situation is better than other non-FLY districts.
"With the winter we had, we didn't get as many days in before testing that we had hoped," Marlette said. "But on the other hand, if we had started after Labor Day, it would have been worse. There were no snow days in August, so we got those in."
But there is still an overwhelming amount of optimism at this point. In the meantime, while awaiting test results, surveys will be sent to students (grade 5-12), parents, school staff and community members, asking about their particular perception and the impact the school year had on them.
"Hopefully, people can see the advantages," Deitte said. "Everyone seemed to like ending the semester before Christmas and starting a new one after the break. A lot of the issues that people had concerns with, like not getting a full summer, is gone now. We're excited to start thinking about next year."
The data gathered from April 25-May 20 will be benchmarked against the baseline collections from last spring and then linked to each FLY district's website.
"When you focus on what works in teaching, student achievement tends to grow," said Cliff Carmody, executive director for the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative. "I think we'll see improvement and success in this project. I think it'll be bigger and better than most people thought."